PAYETTE, Idaho — The Idaho-Oregon onion industry, which was hit hard by the collapse of dozens of storage and packing buildings in the Treasure Valley area this winter, faces another large challenge.
Upward of 200 million pounds of onions that were ruined when the buildings collapsed under the weight of snow and ice have to be disposed of in the next two months.
But both states have special requirements for the disposal of cull onions to prevent an outbreak of onion maggot, which can devastate onion and other vegetable crops.
Because of the level of devastation caused by the building collapses, both states have moved the deadline for disposal of cull onions from March 15 to April 15.
But getting rid of that many onions will be no easy task, said Jack Yarbrough of Idaho Waste Systems, which operates a landfill in Mountain Home, Idaho.
“This is a major problem and people need to get moving on it,” he said. “Something needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly.”
As many as 200 million pounds of onions may have been destroyed in southwestern Idaho and Malheur County, Ore.
Because of the environmental requirements involved with the burial of cull onions, many landfills in the region aren’t set up to handle onion disposal, Yarbrough said.
IWS is accepting onions but that landfill is 80 miles from Malheur County and can’t handle all of the onions on its own.
The landfill near Payette is also accepting onions but they have to be separated from debris and that landfill is small, Yarbrough said.
The Lytle Boulevard landfill in Malheur County is expected to receive a special permit to dig a trench where onions can be buried, Gov. Kate Brown said Feb. 10 during a press conference in Payette.
But that pit will handle only about 30 million pounds, or an estimated one-third of the ruined onions on the Oregon side, she added.
“We’re going back to the drawing board to figure out how we can get the people power and the resources to expand that pit so that we can bury everything that we need to in a really rapid manner,” Brown said.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said state officials are addressing the problem but also want to make sure to avoid an outbreak of onion maggot, which resulted in an epidemic in the 1960s that devastated onion and other vegetable crops.
He said the state needs to “make sure that our disposal is that kind of disposal that can protect our industry but we also know that we’re going to have to be just a little bit flexible with some of the things we do.”
Idaho State Department of Agriculture Communications Director Chanel Tewalt said the department, health districts, environmental regulators, county commissioners and emergency management officials have been meeting to address the issue.
“There’s been a pretty big group effort to look at what the options are,” she said.